Being human and finding freedom
As our understanding of human growth and development improves, we get a clearer idea of how problems like anxiety and depression develop. And alongside this, we also gain a better understanding of how to engage with and overcome mental health problems. And the best thing? It looks like we have the power to heal and transform ourselves – within us.
In the second part of this series, we’ll explore how to harness this incredible recuperative power. But first, I want to talk about the critical role relationships play in our personal growth and development and how harmful interpersonal experiences can unbalance our brain-body connection.
On being human
We’re incredible. From infancy through to old age, we continue to grow, adapt and develop throughout our lives. Despite the claim that there’s no such thing as society, we’re profoundly social creatures. Our lives are influenced and shaped – from the moment we’re born until the moment we die – by our relationships with other people and by the social context we’re born into. Every day, we’re gaining a better understanding of human growth and development. And that means we’re getting a better idea of how you became you and how I became me.
Relationships, brains, and the sources of distress
When the UK last had a mental health check-up, two-thirds of the population reported experiencing mental health problems1. That’s quite incredible. And it’s obviously troubling. We know factors like poverty, poor health, worklessness, precarious insecurity, and disability can severely affect wellbeing. So too can a loss of hope in the future and toxic cultural narratives. But another critical factor in mental health and wellbeing is our experience of interpersonal relationships. Because, although we often think of ourselves as standalone individuals, the relationships we have with people and the world around us have a huge impact on whether we thrive or barely survive.
Neuroscience has taught us something quite amazing – and it’s this. Our brains are actually, physically sculpted by our interpersonal experiences in infancy and childhood. In fact, relationships lie at the heart of the process that resulted in you becoming you and me becoming me. Alongside this, we’re also learning how toxic relationships can contribute to a whole range of difficulties. From low self-esteem through to the most severe types of psychosis, toxic relationships often have a part to play. However, there’s an upside to all of this. We’re also learning about the brain’s incredible recuperative power – neuroplasticity – and how it can be harnessed to heal, renew and bring about a transformation in our everyday lives. So there’s room for cautious celebration.
Now, neuroscience is a relatively new discipline. Until recently, our understanding of the brain’s role in human behaviour was largely inferred from the impact of brain damage. And, although it’s hard to say for sure, the link between the brain and behaviour was most likely only recognised following a single and shocking event. Back in 1848.
Phineas Gage and the accident that changed the world
Phineas Gage, an ordinary, everyday American labourer, was working at the heart of America’s railroad revolution. On an ordinary day, under a cloudless Vermont sky, Gage sustained a traumatic brain injury when an accidental explosion sent an iron rod rocketing through his head. Although much of his brain’s left frontal lobe was destroyed, Gage incredibly survived the accident. But – as you’d expect – he wasn’t unscathed. As a result of the accident, Phineas Gage was transformed from a mild-mannered family man into a disinhibited social nuisance. Gage’s transformation inspired scientists to explore the brain’s role in human behaviour, and we can truly say his accident has changed the world.
So what have we learned?
Our brains are incredibly sophisticated, split into two connected hemispheres and comprised of three distinct but inter-connected and inter-affecting parts: the evolutionarily-old brainstem (which maintains vital biological functions), the limbic system (our emotion- and memory-processing centre), and the multi-lobe cerebral cortex (the seat of higher functions like abstract thought, language, information-processing, and perhaps consciousness).
A typical human brain is comprised of an astonishing 100 billion cells (neurons), each forming an intricate and extensive neural network with 100 TRILLION neural connections. Compare this with the worm and his meagre 23 neurons. Neurons communicate via electrical signals that are carried by chemical neurotransmitters like dopamine, endorphin and serotonin. Sound familiar? That’s perhaps because neurotransmitters are not only known to generate experiences like happiness, but neurotransmitter imbalances have also been implicated in a range of mental health problems.
As a part of the central nervous system, the brain is responsible for:
- regulating our endocrine and immune systems
- relaying sensory information
- coordinating movement
- activating and deactivating the stress-response system
- encoding and retrieving memories
- mobilising our fight or flight response, and returning us to a state of calm when a threat has passed
- ensuring our needs for food, sex, shelter, sleep and safety are met
- expressing our emotional responses
Our brains give us the ability to empathise and connect with others, to communicate and use language, to make and enact plans, to anticipate and imagine the future, to think in abstract terms, to appreciate art and music, to think about our thinking, and much more besides. Without our brains, we’d have no consciousness, sense of self, morality or free will. This isn’t to say that every thought or behaviour is reducible to what happens in the brain and it doesn’t mean “I think therefore I am”, as the philosopher René Descartes would have us believe. Because we’re more than just our brains.
During the past twenty years, with the emergence of brain-imaging technologies, neuroscientists have revealed that our brains are in a constant state of growth, adaptation, assimilation and change because we’re continually interacting with the physical and social world. So it makes no sense to think of the brain – or the Self – in isolation. Instead, our humanity emerges precisely and only because our embodied brains interact with the world and the people around us.
Our genetic inheritance plays a part, as you might expect, and we’re hard-wired to have the human-type brains described above. But that’s only a part of the story. Our brains are continually re-wired by our physical activities in the world, like learning a new skill or choosing to step outside you’re home, despite severely disabling agoraphobia. Even our thoughts and emotional responses can restructure our brains (something we’ll be looking to harness further on), and of course social context and human relationships are a powerful – perhaps the most powerful – influence on our ongoing neural development.
So, why should relationships be so powerful?
The power of relationships
Human babies are born essentially premature. Our brains and nervous systems are surprisingly under-developed at birth, and this explains why we’re absolutely dependent for far longer than any other species. Following birth, the first nine months of a baby’s life sees rapid neurological development. During this time, and of course later, the mother (or caretaker’s) love, care and affection have a direct and fundamental role in the baby’s neurological development. Dad’s love is, of course, important – but mum2 is the centre of the baby’s universe. As incredible as it may sound, our brains are physically shaped, constructed and re-constructed by the experiences we have in infancy and beyond. Every experience impacts upon the infant’s brain development as new neural connections are continually created, destroyed and rewired as neurons ‘fire and wire’ together. We also know that the way our brains develop in infancy and childhood will shape our personalities and thus the lives we go on to live3 .
As we grow from infancy into childhood and adolescence, we begin to interact with other people, the physical environment, and with the myriad forces, traditions, ideas, languages, symbols, and structures that shape our culture and society. From this continually interacting process, we come to have both a conceptual and an emotional understanding of ourselves, of what other people are like, and of the world we live in. We can think of this model of the self, others and the world as an Internal Working Model4. Whether operating at a conscious, conceptual, emotional or pre-conscious level, internal working models shape our expectations of what the world and other people are like, and they frame how we relate to other people, how we behave, the decisions and choices we make, and ultimately the lives we live.
When things go well, positive interpersonal and social interactions create a virtuous circle that fosters healthy neurological-development and helps us develop the capabilities we need to live rich and full lives. This gives us a sense that the world’s a good and safe place, other people are reliable and trustworthy, and that we are eminently capable, worthwhile and loveable. This all socialises us into our society’s way of living, cultivates positive personal-development, and helps us integrate into healthy interpersonal relationships.
However, when infants and children aren’t nurtured with love, care and affection, or where parents are unable to provide optimal developmental support, things tend not to go so well. Parental neglect, over-involvement, abuse, stress and traumatic childhood events like bereavement can seriously harm neurological-development5. This can damage our personal development, hamper our ability to form relationships with other people, and undermine our emotional, psychological and physical wellbeing. The world and other people can feel not just unsafe, but positively dangerous, and we can feel helpless and unable to do anything about it. It can be a hopeless place to find yourself.
Even the seemingly benign experience of conditional parental love, where the child is only loved and accepted when she obeys a certain set of rules, can cause unintended harm. These conditions of worth can leave the child unable to express herself fully, and this can lead to anxiety, sadness, rage, fear, depression, defensiveness, distrust and anger.
Of course, children are extremely creative and can adjust and adapt to challenging and stressful environments; but, by the time we each adulthood, these creative adjustments may prevent us from living rewarding or fulfilling lives.
Alongside challenging family situations, emerging evidence tells us that intolerable social experiences like bullying and discrimination not only cause emotional and psychological pain, but also harm brain-function and neurological development, while of course causing significant harm to the person6. Although we’re told that sticks and stones may break your bones but names will never hurt you, the last part simply isn’t true: words can be devastating. And not just for children and adolescents. Discrimination, prejudice and bullying are as toxic for adults as for anyone else.
So, instead of a virtuous circle, harmful interpersonal or social experiences tend to create a vicious circle that perpetuates harm and limits the horizons of our everyday experience. As you’d expect, this can lead to the kind of withdrawal we label ‘depression’, the fearful worry and unease we call ‘anxiety’, and an array of problems around anger, drugs, food, sex and self-harm. And all of this without mentioning trauma and psychosis, both of which really deserve far more care and attention than I can devote here7.
The processes I’ve described are, of course, far more complex than can be accurately captured in a short article. However, this gives you the gist of what goes on and how our problems in living – however we define them – are often rooted in our experiences of social and interpersonal relationships.
In part two, How does understanding human growth and development offer us the keys to freedom?, we’ll explore how to overcome some of the developmental harms that are embodied in our neural circuitry and beyond… Until then, I’d be interested to hear any thoughts you’re happy to share below.
1 Mental Health Foundation, ‘Surviving or Thriving: The State of Mental Health in the UK’ (2017); downloaded on May 12th, 2017 from https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/sites/default/files/surviving-or-thriving-state-uk-mental-health.pdf
2 This is true in western cultures, although there appears to be a diffusion of attachment in more communal societies See, for example, Naomi Quinn and Jeannette Marie Mageo (Eds.) (2013), Attachment Reconsidered: Cultural Perspectives on a Western Theory
3 Sue Gerhardt (2004), Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain. Routledge: London.
4 John Bowlby (1988). A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development. Routledge: London.
5 Very few parents intentionally set out to harm their children. Where parents are unable to provide the optimal level of developmental support, this typically points to a lack of ability rather than a lack of willingness. Further, we learn to parent as a result of our own experience of parenting – if we were inadequately parented as children by our own parents, we will likely replicate the same parenting strategies when our own time comes. In turn, our own parents learned how to parent from their parents, thus we can see how sub-optimal parenting can be transmitted across the generations, a phenomena known as poisonous pedagogy.
6 Vaillancourt T, Duku E, deCatanzaro D, MacMillan H, Muir C, et al., ‘Variation in hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activity among bullied and non-bullied children’ in Aggressive Behavior. 34: 294-305 (2008). See Also Vaillancourt T, Hymel S, McDougall P., ‘The biological underpinnings of peer victimization: Understanding why and how the effects of bullying can last a lifetime’ in Theory into Practice. 52: 241-248 (2013).
7 This is, of course, an incredibly complex – and contentious – subject, and I’ll write about it in far more detail elsewhere. A single line is just not sufficient to do it justice